Yesterday’s meeting between the President and leading Wall Street CEOs (the ones who actually showed up rather than dialing in for a video conference call) reminded me that time and time again during the past eleven months, I have found myself wondering who’s afraid of Barack Obama.
Charlie Gasparino, who, like a busted clock, is right every once in a while, reported that the White House supplied the bank CEOs with an advance copy of the President’s talking points – so that there would be “no surprises”. Well, excuse me; we wouldn’t want any of our Wall Street Titans getting anxious, now would we?
These are the same CEOs who presided over the greatest financial meltdown since the Great Depression — the same ones who are spending hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying against anodyne financial reform legislation that would reduce the risk of a repeat meltdown. No, we don’t want them anxious – we want them pissing in their pants.
What would LBJ have done in yesterday’s meeting? The LBJ who famously said “”If you’ve got ‘em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” I can only imagine:
LBJ: “Vik, Jamie, Ken, Lloyd welcome to the Oval Office. Jamie and Lloyd, have a seat. Ken and Vik, you still work for me, so you can stand against the wall there with the staff.”
“Now, I want to be clear that y’all have a perfect right to lobby against my financial reform legislation. That’s entirely your decision – at least it is while you have your jobs.
“I just want to run through a list of things I have a perfect right to do as President. Not that I’m necessarily going to do any of them, mind you, but I might.
- I have a right to ask the Attorney General to begin preparing lawsuits on behalf of the American people and your shareholders – and I am one of your shareholders – to recover from you and your Boards of Directors the sums that you squandered. I’m pretty sure he’ll come up with something we can file.
- And I have a right to send in an army of bank examiners to make sure that none of you were spending bank funds in a way that wouldn’t hold up under public scrutiny.
- And, oh yes, I can ask little Timmy Geithner to find someone to replace every one of you – the banks I didn’t own yesterday, I just might own tomorrow.
“Now, I have a right to do those things, and I just want you to think about that when you’re deciding which of your rights you want to exercise. Thanks for coming down. Help yourself to some Christmas cookies on your way out.”
LBJ was hardly the only president who understood that a president needs to play Fear Factor from time to time. JFK famously jawboned the steel industry into rescinding price hikes by threatening a Justice Department antitrust investigation. Richard Nixon demonstrated that the appearance of angry irrationality could serve his interests when he put American forces on alert during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Ronald Reagan understood that even a genial president needs to be feared when he summarily fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
So far, President’s Obama’s friends have had a lot more to fear from him than have his enemies. Consider Greg Craig, a loyal and courageous man who earned the wrath of his former friends and employers, Bill and Hillary Clinton, by publicly and strongly backing Obama for president, only to be driven from the White House Counsel’s post by a campaign of leaks orchestrated from the very top of the Administration.
Every so often, I find myself humming “Johnny Get Angry,” and wondering when President Obama will give one of his political opponents something to be afraid of. It can’t happen too soon.